October 31, 2013
Case Study

Social Media Marketing: UNC Health Care boosts weekly reach of Facebook page 2,576% with live chats

SUMMARY: Social media has taken over the long-held parental warning about television: it will rot your brain. Many brands only post fun content, as marketers are worried that serious topics will be ignored. Increasingly, social media has become a space where people collect information that seriously affects their lives.

Read how UNC Health Care brought health information to its Facebook page with a live chat series between medical professionals and fans. Learn how it found an audience for this content, and also a unique way to connect while driving Facebook likes up 140% and weekly reach up 2,576%.
by Courtney Eckerle, Reporter


Teaching is one of the paramount objectives within the University of North Carolina Health Care System, according to Tom Maltais, Assistant Director External Affairs, UNC Health Care.

UNC Health Care is a large integrated health care system with an academic medical center at its core. It includes a number of other health care organizations across North Carolina that fall under the university's health care umbrella.

After creating the UNC Health Care System Facebook page, what Maltais and Tom Hughes, Media Relations and Social Media Strategist, UNC Health Care, noticed was a slow growth in the number of likes the page was achieving.

Hughes and Maltais believed that UNC Health Care was viewed as a large brand, and needed to clearly define "what is UNC Health Care, and what does it mean to people. We had to figure out better ways to engage them," Hughes said.

According to Hughes, the team noticed with pages that had a more personal connection with patients, such as the N.C. Children's Hospital within the UNC Health Care System, people were more apt to like the page.

"We just wanted to get people coming back to the page — we wanted to get them engaged," Maltais said, adding the initial goal was to increase the audience, and then focus on engagement.


To establish that personal connection, the team decided to bring critical health information to the UNC Health Care Facebook page with a live chat series between medical professionals and social media followers. There have been eight live chats so far, covering various topics and lasting an hour each.

Hughes works on media relations on behalf of the organization along with a Media Relations Team, and runs the day-to-day operations of all social media channels. Maltais started the Facebook chats, and he and Hughes have been working together on them since then.

"It's a little scary, doing the very first one. You don't know if anyone's going to show," Hughes said.

In order to not only grow their Facebook audience, but also increase the amount of engagement the page was achieving, Maltais and Hughes eventually expanded to an audience outside of their own state with the chats.

Step #1. Plan a topic and achieve buy-in

The first Facebook live chat was held in February 2012. February is heart health month, a perfect beginning topic, Maltais said.

"The first thing we did was we thought, 'You have to find the right physician to start with.' We were lucky this all came about around heart month," he said, adding, "We basically needed to get buy-in, number one, from whoever is going to be the presenter. Then, we also have to get buy-in from the people that we report to."

The chat was titled "Listen to Your Heart" and brought in Dr. Paula Miller to focus on and answer questions about women's heart health.

"We chose Dr. Miller because she had piloted 10 years ago our Mall Walking Program, and she was not afraid to try something new," Hughes said.

Besides the opportunity to speak on an important issue, Hughes said they pitched the idea to Dr. Miller with the perspective that the chat would generate new patients.

He added they also knew she already had a very loyal patient base, so "we knew she could promote this internally, and our hope was realized as her patients did turn out," he said.

The turnaround time was relatively small, Maltais said, around two to three weeks, but gaining buy-in from the right medical professional has been the trickiest part over the eight chats so far. They haven't had any doctors approach them with a topic and speaking offer yet, so coming up with the topic and the expert to chat is their responsibility.

"I think part of that is just because it's still relatively new thing. It seems like each one that we've done we've had to explain what a Facebook chat is, and what happens [during the chat]," Hughes said.

For presentations to the community, the doctors "all know exactly what that entails. But, when we say we want do something like this, it takes a bit of explaining … It's just a matter of building comfort," he said.

Step #2. Conduct a practice session

The chief way the team has increased presenters' comfort with the Facebook chat format is by holding a practice session.

"We usually do a practice session with each person before we do the chat so they have a general idea of what they want to talk about and they have a general idea of what sort of questions to expect," Hughes said.

According to Hughes, there are usually three or four team members participating in the practice session who will submit sample questions to get the presenter comfortable with the format.

A live chat that was conducted with a doctor who doesn't use Facebook, which, "I always thought was great," Hughes said. "He doesn't use Facebook himself, and yet he agreed to do this Facebook chat for us at our request, and then it ended up being the most popular one we've done."

The practice sessions help the presenter gain confidence the format, and show them how simple it is to convey information.

"As long as somebody can type and they can type an answer in response to somebody's question, they can do a Facebook chat. They don't really have to be familiar with how to use Facebook," Hughes said.

Prepare tactics to keep the conversation on track

Since the chats are live, these practice runs only give the presenters a general idea of the questions that will be asked. Although the chats are moderated, the team tries not to control the conversation unnecessarily.

The moderation is "basically a safety feature in case somebody were to come on and were to use profanity or ask inappropriate questions. We simply would not present those questions to the person who's doing the chat," Hughes said.

Hughes explained at first, he was worried someone participating in the chat would either have a particular complaint about the doctor who was doing the chat, or perhaps someone with a particular grievance against UNC Health Care that wasn't related to the chat at all.

"I'd have to say, I've been pleasantly surprised that we haven't had any of that in the chats so far. I guess I should knock on wood when I say that, but we really haven't had anyone who has been … trying to disrupt the chat," Hughes said.

Another concern was people would use the live chats as a forum to ask for specific medical advice, or advice outside of the doctor's expertise, but the few times that has happened, the doctor speaking has swiftly handled the question.

"We've been fortunate that our physicians who have been participating have always done their best to give their perspective without going on there and giving diagnosis. They are there to talk about a subject, but they're not there to serve in the role as if they were in a clinic with someone," Maltais said.

Step #3. Promote among current patients to develop brand advocates

Maltais said existing patients ask better questions, so it is vital to heavily promote these chats to current patients.

"They ask pretty informed questions. It's someone saying, 'I've been seeing you or I've been seeing another physician … about my condition and for a couple of years now,' and then they're speaking from experience," Maltais said.

From the first chat, the objective quickly became how to best approach future chats, according to Hughes. For instance, an assumption going into the first chat had been they might draw in future patients, but then they discovered the power of current patients.

Leading up to the inaugural chat, Hughes was anxious about securing an audience, worried that their efforts might not translate into participants. For the first chat, their promotional efforts included:
  • Posters for patients

  • Emails sent to employees

  • Facebook posts

  • A Facebook ad targeting those interested in heart health

What surprised Hughes was the effect the presenter, Dr. Miller, had promoting the chat to her patients.

"I thought, well, that's nice, but we're trying to hit new [patients]," Hughes said.

The benefit of having Dr. Miller's current patients participate in the chat was unanticipated, but became more than welcome as they proved to be loyal brand advocates.

"[The current patients] got on there and started sharing how much they loved Dr. Miller. You can't get a better endorsement there," Hughes said.

Since the first chat, promotional tactics that specifically target existing patients have been emphasized, such as the doctor's themselves and Facebook posts, with the hope of drawing them into the chats to share stories and collect endorsements, which would reflect well on the brand and draw in potential patients.

Make chat available to view later

A chat replay is made available on the UNC Health Care Facebook page in a tab on the page, so even if someone is unable to attend live, they can view the transcript later.

This has been a real benefit in prolonging brand advocacy, according to Maltais.

"It's a permanent record of what these folks have said, and the wonderful thing they've said about our services … it lives as a great endorsement," he said.

Step #4. Determine the audience identity

Once the chats begin, the vendor running the technical side of the chats will do a survey of the audience to understand the demographic.

During the first chat, the team could see the names of the people coming in, and knew the audience was mostly women, Maltais said, but had no idea of their age range, or where they lived.

Those questions were posed over the chats to determine the age range of the audience, and if they lived in Raleigh Durham or Chapel Hill region of North Carolina. As attendees are viewing the chat, a pop-up allows them to answer the questions while still participating in the chat.

It appears "very quickly, then people answered it, and it only took them about 30 seconds. It just gave us a sense of who we were talking to. A good number of the folks that were on the chat were over age 60, whereas we thought being Facebook, we were going to skew towards a much younger audience," Maltais said.

Knowing this information allowed the doctor speaking to tailor and personalize her answers to that audience, and answer a perspective that could otherwise have gone unacknowledged.

Maltais gave the example of a live chat they did on the subject of allergies, and asked the audience if they were in the chat to learn about an allergy relating to them or their child.

"It's very helpful to help you tailor what information you're throwing out there," Maltais said.

The tone of the conversation can change to be more relevant with a few vital pieces of information.

Step #5. "Newsjack" topics for relevance

One of the most successful chats they have conducted, according to Hughes and supported by the 2,100 times it has been viewed since going live, was with Dr. Jonathan Oberlander.

A Ph.D. in political science and expert on health policy, Dr. Oberlander informed chat participants and answered questions on the Supreme Court's Affordable Care Act decision.

While the first live chat came together relatively quickly — in two or three weeks — this chat was done the day after the decision was handed down and required a nimble lead time of only three days.

The quick turnaround was well worth it however, Hughes said, given its popularity and the importance of the topic to not only the medical community, but also to the country.

"At the time, that issue was one of the biggest news stories in the country … it turned out to be simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and that's why that chat turned out to be the most popular one we've done," Hughes said.

Step #6. Reach out to relevant organizations to expand audience

Maltais said the fourth chat covering egg allergies was benefited by finding multiple ways to promote it. Featuring Dr. Wesley Burkes, Chair of the Department of Pediatrics, UNC Health Care, the team also reached out to Dr. Stacey Jones from Arkansas Children's Hospital.

Arkansas Children's Hospital had just released a study regarding a potential new treatment for egg allergies. That became a great opportunity for cross-promotion between the two institutions, and the University of Arkansas helped to promote the chat, as well.

"So, the benefit there is that you know we not only had people here in North Carolina participating in that chat, but we had people in another state," Hughes explained.

Along with working with the University of Arkansas, the team promoted the Facebook chat to blogs geared towards mothers, specifically those with children with food allergies.

According to Maltais, another key component to draw in chat participants was reaching out to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

"They were very helpful in promoting our chat … after that we thought, O.K., now what we really need to do is start looking at other parties [that] may be interested in helping us promote this, to raise awareness of the information that we're trying to get out there," Maltais said.

After the success with reaching out to external organizations, the team decided to capitalize on a state-wide conference on diabetes for an upcoming chat on the disease. There were a few thousand attendees at the conference, according to Hughes.

"UNC Health Care is one of the major sponsors and participants of this event, and so we had a sizeable display there and we had hundreds of fliers there. Everyone that came to our booth got a flier, and were talking about the chat," Hughes said.


In terms of their takeaways, Maltais said the initial goal was basic — just to increase the number of Facebook likes. The first six months of the chat saw a 75% increase of the number of likes compared to the previous six months.

However, UNC Health Care's accomplishments have far surpassed that goal:
  • A 480% increase in daily interactions

  • Average weekly reach increase of 2,576%

  • A 75% increase of page likes in the first six months

  • Page likes have currently increased by 140%

  • The Affordable Care Act live chat has been replayed more than 2,000 times

The team has surpassed many of their original goals, Maltais said, and "to take it from there, once we have the larger audience, then what can we do [is connect] better with them and be able to raise awareness of some of our programs and services."

Creative Samples

  1. Chat questions

  2. Facebook chat tab

  3. Chat survey


UNC Health Care

Capstrat — Facebook chat vendor

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